By Emily Hogstad
This season the Minnesota Orchestra has programmed a rich variety of American composers, encouraging musicians and audiences alike to grapple with the question: what is American music, anyway?
Our forerunners have been here before. In 1917 the Minneapolis Symphony, as the Orchestra was then called, programmed an all-American concert featuring works by George Whitefield Chadwick and Amy Beach, who was billed as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.” Even back then we wondered, what is American music? And what can our institutions do to support American work?
That December, the Minneapolis Symphony performed two works by Beach: her Gaelic Symphony and her Piano Concerto, with the composer herself soloing in the latter. It was the first time that the 14-year-old ensemble had ever played work by a woman.
How did this symphony end up on the music stands of this great orchestra? And should it find its way back?
Amy Cheney Beach was one of the more remarkable prodigies of the 19th century. She was born in September 1867 in New Hampshire. Within a year of her birth, she could sing 40 songs from memory. At age four she began composing in her head, writing waltzes at her grandparents’ farm and then playing them on the piano at home. At 14 she took a year’s worth of lessons in harmony and counterpoint. (This would be her only formal training in composition.) At 16 she made her debut as piano soloist with the Boston Symphony.
The trajectory of her life changed when she married at 18. Dr. Henry Beach was a wealthy, well-respected and well-connected surgeon, and the marriage appears to have been a happy one. He discouraged her from performing for profit, fearing that her doing so would send the wrong message about his ability to provide, but he did encourage her to compose. Therefore the young Mrs. H. H. A. Beach found herself blessed with talent, time, money, and social connections. In 1894, she began writing the Gaelic Symphony. A couple of years later, when she was 29, the Boston Symphony premiered it.
The Gaelic Symphony appeared just as the country was engaging in an intense conversation about what American music should be. In a promotional video for this past January’s American Expressions festival, Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä mused, “There is not only one kind of American music. It’s a huge variation.” Composers of the late 19th century were coming to the same conclusion, and their doing so raised a lot of questions. Was distinctly American music even possible when the country was so racially and culturally diverse?
Searching for an American Sound
Some theorized that African American folksong should serve as the necessary building blocks for a new American sound. Antonín Dvořák inserted himself into the discussion when he praised the musical value of spirituals. He’d later cite the “spirit” of African American and Native American music as inspiration for his New World Symphony, which was first played in Boston in December 1893, mere months before Beach started writing the Gaelic. Beach’s reaction to the Dvořák is fascinating:
“It is interesting throughout, the machinery of it admirably managed, the orchestral and harmonic coloring done by a master. It seems to me light in calibre, however, and to represent only the peaceful, sunny side of the [African American] character and life. Not for a moment does it suggest their suffering, heartbreaks, slavery.”
Others shared Beach’s hesitancy to employ African American folksong, and for a variety of complex reasons. (Some of those reasons would be labeled problematic today.) Philip Hale, critic at the Boston Herald, wrote, “The great majority of Americans are neither Indian, nor are they descendants of negroes or Indians. How then can folk songs attributed to the negro or Indians be distinctively, peculiarly American?” Beach added her own careful caveats: “It seems to me that, in order to make the best use of folk-songs of any nation as material for musical composition, the writer should be one of the people whose music he chooses, or at least brought up among them.” (That said, more than once she failed to follow her own advice.)
From Celebration to Obscurity
It was against this background that Beach chose to highlight Anglo-Celtic folk tunes in her symphony. However, strikingly, her so-called “Gaelic Symphony” begins and ends with her own original melodic ideas. “The finale,” she wrote, “contains only themes of my own devising… [It] tries to express the rough, primitive character of the Celtic people, their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles and the elemental nature of their processes of thought and its resulting action.” Clearly, she considered folksong to be a means to an expressive end, not the end itself.
Beach’s colleagues were impressed with this ambitious new work. At the time, she was part of a group of Boston-based composers known as the Second New England School. Save for Beach, all were well-trained men (like Chadwick) who held prominent positions in academia. Arguably, the biggest impact these colleagues made was pedagogic; they taught students like Florence Price and Charles Ives, who helped to carry American music into the 20th century. Also, their high-quality compositional output granted valuable credibility to American schools, which in turn helped to set the stage for America becoming a music education powerhouse. No longer would ambitious young composers have to go overseas for top-notch training.
However, Beach, being a largely self-taught woman, never took a position in academia. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t influence the ensuing generation (indeed, she was widely applauded for helping to legitimize women composers in particular, and she loved supporting young artists). But when the sentimental style of the Second New England School fell out of vogue, and members’ works largely vanished from concert platforms, Beach’s legacy was perhaps at a comparative disadvantage, since she’d never enjoyed an institutional affiliation or formal students who might later advocate for her work. Her unique career arc is one of many potential reasons why the Gaelic Symphony, after such an enthusiastic early reception, fell into relative obscurity.
A Moment of Reappraisal
Today we’ve arrived at a moment of reappraisal of Beach’s life and legacy. There is a dawning realization that sexism—as well as racial prejudice—has smothered the voices of composers whose works might prove enriching. So it’s time to learn to hear genius in unexpected places. Again and again we must keep asking, what is American music? And how should orchestras advocate for it and bring audiences closer to it?
An ensemble willing to program someone like Amy Beach, and to talk about this complicated history, will help to advance these vital discussions. As Beach herself told the Star Tribune before her 1917 triumph here, “You in Minneapolis know what an orchestra does, outside of its direct work, in creating listeners and all sorts of by-products leading to more intimate association with music.”
Emily Hogstad is a freelance arts writer who blogs at Song of the Lark. She writes regularly for Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s website and contributes program notes to the Minnesota Orchestra and the Lakes Area Music Festival. A violinist and violist, she has also appeared as pre-concert talker with the Hill House Chamber Players, the Musical Offering and the Lakes Area Music Festival.